Check the recent archives of any major online publication and you’ll find the gushing coverage that’s contributing to the hype Dry Cleaning are currently experiencing. And no wonder, a group of industry veterans fronted by an artist, absorbing and then projecting observations of the mundane and the mercurial in an almost entirely spoken word format has captured the minds of those who have witnessed it.
Preparing to release their debut EP ‘Sweet Princess’ into the ether, an aurora of mystery still clings around Dry Cleaning. A recent press release shedding light upon the bands lineage is semi-recondite in nature, with the biggest contributing factor to the complexity coming directly from singer Florence Shaw herself. An art lecturer by day and a seasoned front-person since never, Shaw’s story of becoming such an essential part of the band is still very much a vague one. The genius behind the decision to include her though cannot be ignored, as the lyrical delivery of blunt internal monologues – found on recent singles ‘Goodnight’ and ‘Magic of Meghan’ – have come to define the personality of the quartet.
As we settle down for a conversation together on the phone, we both acknowledge the pitfalls of the technology we’re using to communicate. “If I drop out at anytime, let me know and I’ll move somewhere else in the house”, Shaw elucidates. Repeated listens to the new record paint a picture of the artist being deadpan and frank; cold with a cutting tongue. As Shaw’s voice emanates out of the speaker, however, a much different temperament is projected; buoyant, jovial and courteous, the conversation unfolds as if we’ve been close friends for years.
Wax: You’re quite open about not having any musical experience at all, so I’d be really interested to know how events transpired which lead you to becoming a member of Dry Cleaning.
Florence Shaw: In terms of how I joined, it was kind of like an experiment. I think it was a bit of a perfect storm with Tom (Dowse, guitarist) knowing me from art school and thinking, “oh, maybe Florence would write some interesting lyrics.”
I used to write on a lot of drawings I made, just words, accompanying the drawings. I’ve put out books in the past which had some writing in too. Similar sort of stuff to what you hear in the lyrics, but just blown up a lot more, sitting on their own. So Tom knew I’d been doing that kind of work and was looking for someone, perhaps a non-musician, to just do something a bit experimental and just invite a different sensibility into the band.
W: I imagine being suddenly introduced to the music industry with the rapid progression that Dry Cleaning has had so far is quite daunting. How have you coped with all the new experiences, as well as the other situations you’ve been put in when performing with Dry Cleaning?
F: I would say coping (laughs) – it’s definitely an ongoing process. I would say my age really helps. I’m not a spring chicken and I think if I was younger this would be much, much more daunting. I think age is a wonderful thing; it really helps you to keep things at arms length and to be a bit more objective about stuff. Being a part of this is a type of exposure I’ve not had in my life and it’s a tiny amount of exposure, that’s the hilarious thing. But to be in it, it feels like quite a lot, especially when it’s an increase from ZERO! Also, I think just the personal nature of the lyrics add to that. I’m like, “oh jeez, everyone is actually listening to what I’m saying,” and that’s kind of intense but enjoyable at the same time.
W: That’s interesting because lyrically, your content seems to be quite dense, with there being little emphasis on repetition and the delivery being almost monologue in structure. I remember listening through the EP for the first time and enjoying trying to decipherer some of the meaning and intention behind what was being said. Could you expand on what inspires you when it comes to constructing your lyrics and explain some of the themes behind them?
F: Well, I would say there’s probably over-arching themes to all the words that I collect and write, but it’s quite hard for me to say what they are. It’s basically all the things I’m interested in. It’s the same thing all my drawings are about; things I think about every day.
But what is true is that each song tends to have quite a specific theme. The way I usually work is that I get everything I write and pinch from other places, what I’ve heard or whatever, I’ll collect them all on just sheets of paper and I’ll go through with highlighters and try to identify different ideas. So I’ll be like, “ah, it seems like there’s quite a few lines here about train travel”, or “there seems to be quite a few lines here that are about being helpless in a romantic situation”. I’ll just gather them all, plonk them all together and when we rehearse I’ll just improvise and fit them all together over the top.
W: It’s noticeable that a lot of the lyrical content you use seems to be hyper-modern. For example, I know you used Youtube comments to form the core of the lyrics in ‘Goodnight’, as well observations of the more mundane and unassuming things in life, as on ‘Traditional Fish’. What exactly attracts you to these themes that makes you want to use and explore them in your songwriting?
F: I go through phases of being interested in different things word wise. So for a while I was taking lots of screenshots of Youtube comments I’d see. With ‘Goodnight’, I was really interested in how open people were being about personal things underneath songs. A lot of the lyrics I found underneath Aphex Twin songs on Youtube. People were just sharing so much of their personal life and what the songs reminded them of and I just felt moved by it and in a sense, that’s just quite a nice part of the internet.
But with something like ‘Traditional Fish’, that song is pretty much written out of loneliness. It was a bit of a rubbish time for me and I wrote it just on the bus, looking out the window and then going into a shop and looking at the front of ‘Take A Break’ magazine and others like that. It was basically a combination of depression and loneliness and just being a bit blank. You don’t feel like anything is coming out of you, it’s just stuff coming from the outside in. I was filling a void I guess, just reading things and feeling a bit numb. I often feel like looking out the window of a bus, or a car, or whatever, sometimes you can feel that you’re sort of reaching out for something, you’re waiting for something to appear. But in Traditional Fish, it’s like you’re waiting for something but it doesn’t come.
W: So when it comes to modern-day culture and the subject matters you choose, does the music help you find a sense of respite from the overwhelming behaviour of social media and cyclical news, considering that this has become one of your main sources of inspiration lyrically. Has it changed the way you interact with social media?
F: I would say no, actually. Because I’ve always had this feeling that we’re so inundated with stuff – images and words – that sometimes to write entirely new ones feels like the world doesn’t need it. Which may not make much sense, but in my mind it almost feels like recycling. It’s like we’ve got this giant pile of stuff here, so let’s just use some of that.
I just think the idea that interacting with the things people write online, either reinterpreting them or reworking them or combining them to use in a song lyric, is really a way of feeling good about what’s on the internet and engaging with it. There’s so much writing out there, so much interesting, funny, personal writing, it’s almost a bit of recycling I guess.
‘Sweet Princess’, the debut EP from Dry Cleaning, is available tomorrow (16th August) – listen to ‘Goodnight‘ below.
Words: Dan E Brown Photography: Hanna-Katrina Jędrosz